I fell in love. It’s a cruel love. The more physically and emotionally painful the love affair got the more I fell in love.
There are two things I learnt from the experience: I was not prepared for this. And. My head is my biggest opponent.
I will only talk about it here and now and then not mention it again as I can sense suspicion and envy when I talk to people about my affection. I encourage everybody to go and meet my love, to find out for themselves. I won’t mention it again until next year, when I will meet my new love again; hopefully better prepared by then.
However, I doubt I will ever be a match, no matter how hard I will try. This is probably part of the fascination.
It hit me completely out of the blue. I’m not the first one it happened to and many people have told me about it beforehand, warned me, and advised me on how to prepare myself for the encounter. Until I experienced it I had no comprehension of what it was going to be like. I thought I did, which was very arrogant of me. When it began I was completely stunned.
It started right in Harrietville, right in the middle of the village. And it wasn’t a gentle start, no easing into the idea of climbing 30 km. It was steep and you didn’t see it coming because the road turned into a left hand corner.
As soon as the road faced upwards climbers pulled away meter by meter. I put up some resistance initially but I knew that I couldn’t sustain the speed they would continue to climb all the way to the top. I had to give up sooner or later and settle into my own rhythm.
My legs were heavy from 130 km of hard riding and racing the previous day and they wouldn’t comply with my demand to turn the pedals at a faster cadence. I could still catch glimpses of colourful jerseys for a while amongst the trees further up the sloping road but most were soon out of sight. A few girls stayed within reach and a few girls I spotted down below. The first five kilometres were a battle with myself: “Turning around is a good option” a voice whispered and “There is no way I can do this for the next two hours”. My quads and hamstrings were screaming at me. I felt defeated and battered and wasn’t prepared to put up a fight. My heart wasn’t in it. However, the scenery was lush and pleasant so I kept pottering along. I wasn’t what cyclist’s would call “climbing” and I certainly wasn’t racing.
Five kilometres into the climb is “The Meg”. I don’t know what the name stands for or why this 400 m pinch of 12% gradient is named “The Meg” but someone had written in big chalk letters on the asphalt “Mediocre Experience Guaranteed”. I wanted to laugh but felt closer to crying. On top of the Meg a yellow line on the road marked the King Of Mountain for this Category One climb. I crossed the line alone. A little earlier the place had probably been filled with people clapping and cheering as the flurry of coloured jersey had gone pass fighting for KOM points but now the spot was deserted, peaceful and quiet, apart from my heavy breathing and the two girls a few meters up the road, laboriously turning their pedals just like me and another few girls further behind.
At this point I had stopped arguing with myself and resigned myself to the fact that this was what I was going to do: to climb Mt Hotham. I had stopped worrying about how far behind I was. I didn’t care anymore what my time was going to be at the end. The familiarity of the surrounding reminded me of the many climbs I had done before, with gum and pine trees lining the road and now and then a glimpse of the valley below.
And then I found my rhythm. All of the sudden, right after the Meg, the pedals turned over easier. My breathing settled and I felt lighter. The cadence increased and with it my speed. I started closing in on the girl ahead of me. I reached her wheel. I passed her. I went on, same rhythm, same cadence and same speed, turning over my pedals with a little less effort than before. I reached the next girl. I passed her as well.
For the first time since the start of the tour I felt like my familiar strong self. This went on for the next four or five kilometres until the road levelled to a mere false flat. I started hammering, fast cadence, big chain ring and speeds hitting 30 km/h. A quick check over my shoulder and I saw the other two girls not far behind. I knew that this section was not going to last forever and that it was a welcome opportunity to flush some lactic acid out of the legs. I changed a few gears down and spun my legs until the two girls had caught up to me. The gradient felt easy now after the past 10 km slog. The three of us started chatting while spinning in a high cadence. The trees started to thin out. The surrounding started to change but I was oblivious to the subtle transformation. We were high up now and the air was much cooler. If I had looked to the left I would have gotten an idea of what lay ahead but I’m glad that I was blissfully unaware.
We reached the National Park toll booths and one of the girls, who had climbed Mt Hotham before, launched into a quick brief of the last ten kilometres. Nothing she said worried me too much as I felt good. We had 45 km of racing in our legs, 20 km of those had been uphill and only ten kilometres to the finishing line. I did not take into consideration that it would take us close to another hour to reach the top.
The road steepened once again to 10% gradient and once again I wasn’t prepared for the pain it caused my sore muscles. My spirit dropped and I encountered old, unwelcome friends. “This is too hard.” “I don’t want to hurt like this.” These thoughts were like little goblins, sitting heavy on my shoulders, weighing me down while whispering in my ears. I had to shake them off and John’s words came to the rescue. I had sent him a text before the race start that morning saying that a DNS (Did Not Start) behind my name didn’t seem such a shameful thing. He had replied in his usual smart cheerful way: DNS = Do Not Surrender.
“Do not surrender” became my mantra for the next few kilometres as I came around the corner and faced the much talked about CRB hill. The landscape was barren and empty now. There were no more trees, only knee high scrub and a cold wind was blowing. Someone said later that it had been 4C on the top. Big orange poles were lining the road, indicating the rocky edge. I should have known. I should have listened to Alberto. I was cursing myself for my ignorance. I felt humbled and desperate. I was missing my 27 teeth cog on my rear cassette.
All I could do was to fly down the short and steep descent to gather as much momentum as possible to slingshot up the 1 km long, 10% gradient climb within the climb, as far as possible. Once the momentum was lost I was hardly able to turn the pedals over. I had to push through the pain, one pedal stroke after another, at a humiliating pace of 7 km/h. The two girls I had shared the last half an hour with pushed ahead. They had a little more strength left.
Our grade had been the last grade to start in the morning, therefore, while we were still climbing, the men’s grades were one by one and in small groups passing us like bullets on their way back down the mountain. Right in the most painful and humiliating moments of the climb I saw Bruce flying pass in a flash, screaming enthusiastically “Go Sandra”, seconds later I heard Craig’s voice and last but not least Mick, who finished 2nd overall in his grade, giving me a cheer while zooming pass.
There was no thought of giving up anymore, just the worry that my legs would loose the last bit of power and force me to give up so close to the top. The 2 km sign lifted my spirits somewhat but it would take me another 15 agonising minutes until I would eventually roll over the finish line to “Well done!” and “Good work!” from bystanders.
I was so relieved that I had made it. That was all that mattered.
Someone yelled at me to keep going, down the hill into Mt Hotham village, where I was supposed to drop off my transponder. I almost cried at the thought of having to climb the 1.5 km back up again afterwards. That’s when I spotted the little blue Toyota Yaris, the commissaire’s car, that had brought up my warm winter gear. I stopped, retrieved my little bag that held my camera, arm and knee warmers, beanie and full finger gloves and while I was rugging up, someone came over and offered to take my transponder off my bike for me. I could have kissed the stranger. I could have kissed and hugged everybody and anybody in that moment. I looked around, took in the beauty and a huge sense of achievement overcame me. All the pain was forgotten. That’s when I fell in love with Mt Hotham.